“It goes against the natural order of things” she tells me. ‘T’, a native Muscovite, is reflecting upon how the utopian ideals of the Soviet system were doomed from the start. Utopia will fall because of the very nature of its inhabitants: the messy, self-centred humans who still want to beat the Jones’ to claim an extra large share of pie for themselves. If everyone was happy with a modest but equal slice then there would be enough pie for all. But of course: ‘enough’ is not enough when you can grab more, even at another’s expense and therefore “win”. That, she says, is true of humans the world over, regardless of whether they are part of capitalist or communist societies.
Zhukovsky, in Moscow Oblast, benefited from its green-zone location and its close ties with the Soviet aeronautical industry. The major production facilities, the trees and the optimistic skyward-launching aircraft industry monument still survive today, but now in a Russia divorced from the halcyon era that ‘T’ remembers of her youth and early adulthood.
Now an expat for 18 years, she tells me of her post-millennial return to find it again, but in the tarmac, brick and stone, the trees, the faces and words of the extant population; it wasn’t there. The demeanour, the accents, the very ‘presence’ of the locals had somehow darkened; -hardened. They had witnessed the tumult of the immediate post-Soviet years after all, or been born into the new and volatile society that followed.
When she was growing up in the late 1960s, she was living in “absolute paradise” – as she describes it. She talks fondly of happy days spent in kindergarten, school, dachas and pioneer camps, long summer holidays and visits to Crimea. Her free reign spreading out across a gleaming new Soviet town and beyond; running alive through fields and pine forests of sprawling green. Further still, propelled by the freedom of bicycles, out to wherever a whim may take her, only to return home later to parents unconcerned by her wanderings. She would never realise how good it all was until she left, years later and found an ‘outside’ to compare it to.
Yes, her parents had walked her to school, once. Then she knew the way, of course! No one would think any more about it. This hands-off approach wasn’t neglect, just that nothing more was needed or expected. It is a parallel to earlier times here in the UK where children were just “out” without the parental lead, without the emergency phone numbers and the list of names and addresses to be reached should anything – or even nothing – arise. But now, with the hindsight of adulthood she may pause to wonder: “were they (the authorities) hiding information, or did nothing actually happen?”. Certainly it’s doubtful that child abduction and murder are recent inventions! Would public admission of such atrocities be tantamount to acknowledging a failure within the Utopian system that the Soviet’s were trying to engineer? That Eden produces serpents?
‘T’ was one of the lucky ones. Her parents held jobs inside the prestigious Aeronautical industry, engineering the gleaming Soviet future on a daily basis, whilst she was academically gifted and sent to a “special advantage school”. There is no politically correct euphemism here: “special” was just that: advantaged, better than average, high-achieving. She was (and is) creatively gifted and enjoyed art classes and piano lessons to compliment her urban and rural wanderings.
In spite of the idyl that she describes, her utopian paradise was not enough to contain her enquiring mind. The outside world did filter in through Communist borders, and with it the artistic wonders of the Renaissance. Da Vinci and Michelangelo only existed tantalisingly behind the impenetrable wall of the printed page, unreachable to those who longed to venture beyond the walls of paradise. To travel beyond and to experience other cultures or to visit the works of history’s great creators was just a dream, realised by only the most privileged but desired by all.
“Why can’t I travel to Italy?” she would ask, confused. “Why can’t I see the world? Why?!”
More next time.
Next time: Doomed utopias #2